When I was in Seoul a few weeks ago, the English-language news program Korea Today broadcast a strangely fascinating story about an "I Love Dokdo" contest at Taegu University. The idea was to see who could come up with the most inspiring tribute to the patch of microislands that has been the focus of a recurring and bitter dispute with Japan. It was strange to see young Koreans sitting on a spare, modernist television set, smiling, laughing and calmly celebrating a nationalist routine. Even odder was the fact that a Mexican exchange student named Emilio, along with a multinational team, won the contest. The goal of their performance, he said on Korea Today, was to "to express our love for Dokdo," in part by showing "the people who have protected Dokdo throughout history" and demonstrating "how beautiful" the islands are.
The contest was but one example of a surge of patriotic fervor in Korea after President Lee Myung-bak visited the islands this August. Stories about the issue fill the pages of daily newspapers. A Dokdo museum has opened in Seoul. During his August visit, Lee called the islands "a place worth staking our lives to defend." At the London Olympics, after the South Korean soccer team's victory over Japan, a Korean player rushed to the center of the field and held up a sign that read, "Dokdo is our territory."
Korea's attitude toward its territorial argument with Japan is symptomatic of the central emerging strategic reality in Asia: Much of the region is passing through a sort of geopolitical identity crisis, with key regional powers determined to find a more elaborate role for themselves. Globalization and interdependence are making people nostalgic for a more secure grasp on local cultures and traditions. The result is likely to be a period whose major risks of conflict will derive less from intentional calculations of national advantage than from a boiling clash of identity, pride, prestige, nationalism, and honor.
The conventional wisdom says that the main test of American strategy in Asia is the "rise of China." In fact, a far bigger challenge may be the growing dominance of these emotional identity issues, because traditional U.S. instruments of statecraft are simply not well suited to dealing with them. A year into the "pivot to Asia," Washington has designed a strategy for a 21st century, Soviet-style deterrence challenge: cold, calculating, pragmatic. Yet when dealing with the psycho-social dramas of countries clashing over pride and identity as much as interests, America's usual m.o. may not have the intended effect. Remarkably, the major strategic risk confronting the United States in Asia today may be its insistence on thinking "strategically."
Many outsiders expressed bewilderment that South Korea could go off on a nationalist binge over a handful of jagged rocks whose sole permanent inhabitants are a single elderly Korean couple. But that, as analyst Jason Lim argued, missed the point. The significance of Dokdo "is not really about logic or reason," he explained. It doesn't primarily have to do with national interests or resources. The dispute "is about emotions," he argued, the "deep emotional trauma that occurred as a result of Imperial Japan's brutal occupation that has since been internalized into Korea's cultural narrative and represents an unhealed psychic scar that has become an article of faith with an almost religious significance." In Seoul, a perfect storm of these sorts of emotion-laden historical legacies, rising national pride and assertiveness, and the political calculations of current leadership generated a willingness to provoke a crisis.